Villains are the Life of the Party

by Tess Adair

[Please note: this post contains spoilers for the first season of Jessica Jones. Read at your own risk.]

 

First of all, I’d just like to say that I love David Tennant.

I love him as the Doctor on Doctor Who, I love him as the bitter detective on Broadchurch, and I love him as crazy-ass spoiled child (Kevin) Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. The man is damn good at playing slightly-to-greatly emotionally erratic characters. He can do it with pizazz and he can do it with deadly seriousness.

 

There’s a dark ass-hole edge to a lot of his characters, perhaps especially the good guys. His Doctor had the temper of a towering inferno and a threatening glare to match. His Inspector Hardy is gruff and forceful, coming across almost emotionally barren until his darker depths start to surface.

 

But his Kilgrave. His Kilgrave is batshit crazy.

And easily offended.

And easily offended.

Jessica Jones does a great job setting him up. At first, we don’t really see him at all. Our first glimpses of him are as subjective as they can be--Jessica’s brief PTSD flashes, wherein he is always doing something creepy. You know, like whispering in her ear or LICKING HER FACE. Yeah, he’s a face-licker. Or at least in her mind he is.

 

Then we see evidence of him--we see the people he’s pushed, the effects he’s had. The confused and the terrified and the traumatized, like a riptide following his movements.

 

And then we see him start to set up shop. We see him enter an apartment and order the owners to invite him for dinner, which they do happily. He orders the children into the closet and orders the girl to relieve her bladder in there. We see urine spread out from under the door.

 

But it’s a little like seeing bodies without seeing the shark in Jaws. We see what he does but we don’t see him. We have no idea what makes him tick--what motivates him broadly, what’s motivating him right now.

 

Until episode 7.

The purple suit is always the mark of a madman.

The purple suit is always the mark of a madman.

Jessica sets herself up for a fall as the first step in her plan to try and trap him. It’s a convoluted plan at best, but people have died and she’s desperate. She’s started to believe that if she can’t stop him, then maybe she can at least remove herself from the equation, believing that he does everything out of hatred for her, revenge against her. She hopes that if she goes away, even if her plan fails, maybe he will lose his motivation and she will no longer be a danger to everyone around her.

 

Of course, her feeble plan never gets up on its feeble legs. He intercepts her at the police station.

By...pretending to be his character from a different TV show.

By...pretending to be his character from a different TV show.

Because he is who he is, he does this in theatrical fashion. He mind-controls the entire department, forcing officers to turn their guns on fellow officers and any civilians present. Everyone stands suspended in place, their very vulnerable lives ensuring his own clean escape.

 

Jessica doesn’t know what to do. She begs him to take her and leave everyone else alone. Begs him to control her and let everyone else go.

 

He refuses to control her: “I want you to act on your own accord.”

 

“Act how? Suicide? Is that why you’ve been torturing me?”

 

Of course not, apparently. Kilgrave is stunned that she would think this--he considers it a clear example of her low self-esteem.

 

No, of course he doesn’t want her to kill herself.

 

He loves her.

 

He hasn’t been torturing her. He’s been showing her what her life really is, what he sees. He’s been trying to show her that he’s the only one who would challenge her, who would do anything for her.

 

He sees himself more as an Edward Cullen than a Hannibal Lecter.

 

Seriously, if you just think of him as a hardcore Twilight fan, it all almost makes sense.

Okay, bringing up Twilight is a little bit facetious...but it’s also pretty relevant. See, you can break Kilgrave down into two distinct parts.

 

First, he’s a comic book villain. The best comic book villains are all marked by one distinct trait that perhaps defines them better than the villainy itself--their obsession with the hero of their story.

 

Lex Luthor is obsessed with Superman. The Joker is obsessed with Batman. Magneto and Professor Xavier are both obsessed with their mutual unexplored sexual tension.

 

The villain’s hero obsession is usually a combination of admiration and disdain, desire and disgust. They love how powerful the hero is but they hate what she uses that power for. Sometimes the hero seems to represent power itself, and oh yes, the villain wants power oh-so-bad.

 

The obsession burns with an intensity that borders on sexual.

 

It might not surprise you to know that this particular blurred line has been explored more in-depth before--by Buffy of course.

 

Spike started off as a pretty standard villain, albeit about a thousand steps above Buffy’s season 1 villain. He was rough and tumble, fond of whiskey and sex and violence. He was never terribly ambitious, but he loved a good fighter. And there was never a better fighter than the Slayer.

 

He couldn’t beat her. The harder the tried, the harder he failed. And the more badly he wanted it.

 

Then, in the middle of season five, he had a dream about fighting her...and then, uh, not fighting her anymore.

 

Poor dude realized he was in love.

Also easily offended.

Also easily offended.

Interestingly, the way he acted toward her once he knew he loved her was not terribly different. A similar thing happened, but in reverse, in season 2, when Angel lost his soul and became the villain. Buffy was dismayed by how different he was, but Willow noticed that he wasn’t completely different:

 

“You’re still the only thing he thinks about.”

 

Once Spike knew he loved Buffy, he started occasionally trying to convince her that she didn’t fit in as well as she thought--with her friends, with conventional morality, with humanity in general. He wanted her to know that she was better than them. Because if you’re better than everyone else, you can do whatever you want to them. Classic villain ideology.

 

There’s a long history of villains trying to “teach” their heroes the exact same thing.

 

So, back to Kilgrave's distinct parts. First, he’s a comic book villain. A villain obsessed with his hero, a villain who thinks he just needs to show her that she’s better than everyone else, so she’ll start to think like him. So she’ll be with him.

 

Second--he’s an abuser. A classic abuser.

Also a classic abuser. The character, not the actor. The actor seems like a nice dude.

Also a classic abuser. The character, not the actor. The actor seems like a nice dude.

I believe that he loves Jessica. Or, to clarify--I believe that he believes he loves Jessica, and that counts. In the end, love is a made-up thing--it’s thoughts and feelings and belief. If you believe you love someone, then you love them.

 

If you happen to be a half-formed or fucked up person, it doesn’t mean you don’t feel love. It just means your love will follow your self--fucked up or half-formed.

 

Kilgrave loves Jessica. His love is super fucked up. His love is selfish. His love wants obedience and ego flattery and shiny pretty things.

 

He wants to own Jessica. Wants her to want only him, to do what he says, to exist as a function of his pleasure.

 

Mind you, he does want her to be happy. He thinks she should be happy existing only for him. He does not understand that she is traumatized by her experience with him, that she sees him as her abuser and her rapist. On a certain level, he doesn’t understand that other people have feelings and wills of their own--his power means that he never has to encounter that reality.

 

And he loves Jessica. Surely she should be flattered by his love. Surely she should be happy that he wants all of her time, all of her. He’ll give her all the pretty dresses in the world, keep her in all the nicest hotels and take her to the best restaurants (where he’ll always get the best table.) All she has to do is belong to him.

 

It’s not...entirely different from the messaging in Twilight.

This is not a  Twilight  picture. I couldn't bring myself to search for one.

This is not a Twilight picture. I couldn't bring myself to search for one.

Edward Cullen is rich. (Christian Grey is rich, too, remember?) He wants to provide for Bella, to give her a pretty little cottage and beautiful dresses and a college education and maybe an island.

 

He also wants her to cut off all contact with her best friend, and he thinks it would be best if she just cut off all contact with the outside world entirely. In fact, he’d really feel more comfortable if she would just give in and let him make all her decisions for her.

 

But hey, he’ll give her all these pretty things. All she has to do is belong to him. That’s not so bad, is it?

 

Bella ends up marrying Edward. Jessica ends up battling PTSD. One of these characters had the appropriate response.

Not this one. Again, nothing against the actor.

Not this one. Again, nothing against the actor.

When Kilgrave gives his big love speech, it’s excellent. I have always wished that superhero stories would spend more time exploring the other sides of the villain’s hero obsession. The best villains are the ones with an intricate psychology, and what’s more intricate than this kind of love-hate dance?

 

I love that the show plays with that. And I love that the show does make Kilgrave a little bit sympathetic. When he claims that he never had a chance to be a better person because his upbringing was terrible and no one ever taught him morality--it’s more than a little tempting to believe him. After all, it’s a valid point that our childhoods affect us, even though we have no control over him. It’s not a stretch to say that many people who do “bad” things are the victims of their own lives.

 

And I love that the show gives Jessica a choice.

 

Kilgrave offers to use his powers for good if she’ll stay with him. He claims he needs her moral guidance, that without her, he’d be lost and incapable of making “good” decisions.

 

He will give her use of his powers, let her do what she likes with them.

 

All she has to do is belong to him.

 

This, too, is not without its literary precedent. Traditionally, female stories of heroism have often centered around the idea of feminine sacrifice. Usually, the female character in question must sacrifice for her family, for her children, for her husband. Often she will travel great distances and face great challenges, all of which can be met if she is simply willing to sacrifice her body or her soul or both to achieve her ends. (Actually, Twilight brought this kind of plot line back into popularity, as many of its plots revolve around Bella’s attempts to sacrifice herself.) This kind of storyline emphasized traditional beliefs about women: that they exist to serve their families and to serve men.

 

And Jessica will have none of it.

I love that the show gave her the choice, and it even made it seem heroic. After all, there can be heroism in sacrifice. Just because it’s been used in such a deeply sexist manner doesn’t mean it can’t also be beautiful.

 

When Jessica is considering the sacrifice, she asks herself what Trish would do. Trish is Jessica’s idea of a selfless and caring person, someone who does what’s right, even if she risks herself.

 

But ultimately she decides against it. Not necessarily because it isn’t the right thing to do. It’s what Trish would do. But it’s not what Jessica would do.

 

The show can’t argue that sacrifice is wrong. But it can, instead, point out that staying true to yourself is also not wrong. Protecting yourself is not wrong. Preserving yourself is not wrong.

 

“You your best thing, Sethe. You are.”-Beloved, Toni Morrison

 

You don’t have to stay with Kilgrave. You just have to kill him.

Yeah, you definitely have to kill him.

 

Violence is always the answer.

"If someone tried to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back."